Grant Standbrook sounds more like a martial arts instructor than one of the most successful assistant coaches and recruiters in the history of NCAA Division I hockey.
In addition to a masterful command of teaching the fundamentals of the game, the 74-year-old believes in helping hockey players develop skills between their ears. That explains why, even though he retired from the University of Maine in 2008, impressionable youngsters still hang on his every word.
“If you’re walking down an alley and you’re accosted by two thugs, your natural tendency is to tighten up all your muscles and hold your breath, and that’s the last thing you want to do,” said Standbrook, who won three NCAA championships at the University of Wisconsin and two more at Maine.
“You want to be relaxed, you want to be calm and you want to be breathing properly so you can think clearly and handle the situation.”
The same principles apply to hockey. Late in a close game, the star player tends to receive added attention in the way of cheap shots and verbal taunts in an attempt to throw him off his game.
“It’s natural to want to drill the guy back,” Standbrook said. “But you have to know the situation and what they’re trying to do. You have to be able to keep your composure to help your team finish the game.”
According to Standbrook, great athletes seem to have an innate ability to be relaxed and comfortable in pressure situations. But over the years, he has found that these are skills that can be learned, with the right coaching.
Standbrook developed an appreciation for improving his players’ mental side of the game while at Dartmouth College in the early 1970s and applied that knowledge to two U.S. National Teams and the 1976 Olympic squad. In the rough-and-tumble world of hockey, he introduced to his players the benefits of yoga, proper breathing techniques, meditation and visualization.
One of his protégés, Jim Montgomery, applied many of those techniques during an all-American career at Maine and a 12-year run in pro hockey. The captain of the 1993 National Championship team and the Black Bears’ all-time leading scorer, Montgomery hired Standbrook as a part-time consultant when he became the head coach and general manager of the USHL’s Dubuque Fighting Saints in 2010.
“I did a lot of those [mental] exercises when I was down with injuries, because they kept me mentally sharp and gave me a chance to visualize game situations and being successful in them,” said Montgomery, who led Dubuque to the Clark Cup in his first season.
“You have to understand how to focus and prepare for games to have success, and that’s one of the big reasons I brought in Grant to work with our players.
“If everyone has the same physical skills and the same level of teamwork, what separates the performance is the mental toughness of the athletes involved.
“It’s important to visualize situations before you’ve actually experienced them. Then, when you’re on the ice, those situations feel more natural.”
Dr. Patrick Cohn, the president and founder of Peak Performance Sports in Orlando, Fla., empowers athletes in all sports with mental toughness by helping them discover confidence, composure and focus through powerful mental skill games.
“The mental side of the game is everything,” Cohn said. “If everyone has the same physical skills and the same level of teamwork, what separates the performance is the mental toughness of the athletes involved. By improving the mental game – regardless of whether the athlete has internal or external challenges to overcome – you can perform at your peak more consistently.”
He agreed with Standbrook that mental toughness can be a developed skill.
“It’s like your stickhandling. You always want to learn something new or try a new strategy to take your stickhandling to the next level,” Cohn said. “The same applies to the mental game. You always want to learn new things to improve your mental game.”
Cohn teaches athletes to refocus when they’re distracted and feel confident despite mistakes or setbacks. The key comes in trusting the skills an athlete has developed through years of practice and repetition.
More importantly, athletes must overcome the challenges that suppress mental toughness. High expectations and fear of failure can prohibit athletes from reaching their potential.
“Athletes always feel as though they have to perform perfectly all the time, so they bind themselves up or get frustrated easily when they’re not perfect,” Cohn said.
When he begins working with an athlete, Cohn asks him to let go of expectations that cause pressure. He then focuses on the process of taking one play or one shift at a time.
Confidence can become a controllable mindset if a player focuses on what gives him positive results, such as repetition in practice, good coaching or previous successes. Confidence killers – such as high expectations, self-doubt, negative mental images and comparisons to other players – must be minimized.
Cohn uses Wayne Gretzky, the NHL’s all-time leading scorer, as an example of how the proper mindset can influence a player’s career. Extraordinary cerebral skills enabled Gretzky to envision plays before they occurred.
It started with his pregame warm-up where the Great One would get himself in the right mindset. From there he would review his game plan and make adjustments.
“I would take a few moments in the locker room and visualize myself on the ice to help me avoid distractions and focus on my game plan,” Gretzky said.
Everything in hockey happens so quickly that players don’t have a lot of time to think. But that doesn’t mean they should ignore the mental side of the game.
“Because the game is so fast-paced, it’s more of a reaction sport, which is good, because athletes in sports like golf, baseball and tennis can bog themselves down and overthink things,” Cohn said.
“But, on the other hand, if you’re indecisive or second-guessing yourself for a split second, your opportunity may be gone. So, it’s critical that hockey players are decisive, confident and trust what they’re doing out there.”
Jim Leitner is the sports editor of the Dubuque (Iowa) Telegraph Herald.